Following our good dead friend Aristotle, democracy is literally rule of the people (demos). Once a democratic form of government is chosen, then there is the matter of sorting out which people do the ruling and how they will be selected. In the United States (which is technically a republic) a practical issue of democracy is determining who gets to vote. Those familiar with United States history know that the categories of people who can vote has grown and shrunk over time.
When the United States was founded, voting was limited to white male landowners 21 or older could vote. In 1868 the 14th Amendment granted full citizenship and voting rights to all men born or naturalized in the United States. In 1870 the 15th Amendment eliminated some of the racial barriers to voting, but many states used various tactics to suppress voters. In 1920 the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote and in 1924 the right was extended to native Americans. In 1971 the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18. Currently, Republicans are engaged in a nationwide effort to make it more difficult to vote and are justifying this by appealing to their big lie of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. But there is an interesting philosophical issue here, which is the matter of deciding who should have the right to vote.
Intuitively, there should be limits on who can vote in specific elections. To illustrate, it would be odd to claim that citizens of Maine should be able to vote to determine the governor of Florida or that United States citizens should vote for the mayor of Moscow. There is also the intuitively appealing exclusion of some people based on age. For example, few would argue that 1 year old infants should have the right to vote. But mere intuitions are not enough, what is needed is a principle or set of principles to determine who should be able to vote in a certain context.
One approach to voting is to limit it based on the principle of status. That is, voting should be restricted to a certain set of people to confer status on them and deny it to others. When non-whites and women were excluded from voting, one reason was a demonstration of the hierarchy in the United States—it was one more sign showing who mattered and who mattered much less. While this provides a practical principle for deciding who can vote, it seems difficult to provide a moral justification for this. I certainly will not defend it and will leave it to the sexists to defend exclusion based on sex and the racists to argue for exclusion based on race. And so on for other such hierarchy-based exclusions.
A similar approach to voting that tends to make the same divisions is using the principle of maintaining the status quo. Going back to 1776, a “good” reason to allow only white men who own land to vote is that they will tend to vote in favor of candidates and proposed laws that favor white men who own land. If other people are permitted to vote, they are likely to vote in their own interest, which might not be advantageous to the status quo. This is why Republicans are busy trying to pass laws that would disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters: these voters tend to vote for Democrats and excluding them will help maintain the status quo—or even, as they would see it, improve it. However, the principle of excluding people to maintain the status quo or advantage the included at the expense of the excluded seems morally difficult to justify. I will not defend it, leaving this task to the Republicans and their supporters.
On the face of it, an appealing moral principle for determining who can vote is that those affected by the results of the voting should have the right to vote in that election. For example, as a citizen of Florida and a state employee I am affected by the election of the governor. As such, this would warrant my participation in the election. However, this principle seems to break down very quickly.
The principle of affect seems far too broad in that it, intuitively, would allow people to vote who probably should not have that right. To use a somewhat silly example, infants can obviously be affected by elections, but it would be absurd for them to have the right to vote. To use a somewhat less silly example, everyone in the world is affected by the United States presidential election, but it would seem absurd that everyone would get to vote in that election. Naturally, this could be disputed, and one could defend the principle of affect. Despite its obvious flaw, the principle does seem to be pointing us in the right direction; we just need something that would narrow the scope sufficiently. One option to keep the principle of affect is to modify it and add an appropriate qualifier or three.
Obviously enough, one could go with various practical solutions that we already use. For example, voters could be included or excluded by their geographic location within the relevant political boundaries. Of course, this leads to questions about how these boundaries should be drawn. This is relevant to such matters as gerrymandering and other concerns about manipulating the inclusion and exclusion of voters in elections. While perhaps difficult to implement, the idea of boundaries set by how a person is affected rather than by geography does have considerable moral appeal—after all, it seems intuitively plausible that a person should have a degree of choice in matters that meaningfully affect them. Sorting out all this goes far beyond the scope of a simple blog post, but this seems like a good starting point for additional consideration about voting.